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Blind men with an elephant?

The importance of understanding context

Some of you may recognize this story: A group of blind men learn about an elephant by touching it. Each feels only one part – the trunk, the tusk, the belly. When they describe the elephant, they are in complete disagreement.

Natural capital approaches are applied in complicated contexts. And, such as this Indian parable, teams applying these approaches often see only part of the picture. Governance and Accounting for the Management of Ecological Systems (GAMES)– a Luc Hoffmann Institute project with the University of Cambridge, WWF, AgroParisTech, and NatCap – has developed a ‘Context Diagnostic for Conservation’ to help natural capital practitioners better understand the broader context in which they are working, or elephant they are touching, if you will.  

Laurent Mermet
Laurent Mermet
Bhaskar Vira
Bhaskar Vira
Clément Feger
Clément Feger

In a recent interview, Clément Feger (University of Cambridge and AgroParisTech), Bhaskar Vira (University of Cambridge), and Laurent Mermet (AgroParisTech) told Emily McKenzie (WWF, Natural Capital Project) about the Context Diagnostic and what inspired its development.


WWF-Indonesia team use the Context Diagnostic to reflect on the context in Central Sumatra.
WWF-Indonesia team use the Context Diagnostic to reflect on the context in Central Sumatra. Photo by Clement Feger

Who is the audience for the Context Diagnostic for Conservation and what is it?

The Context Diagnostic is designed for conservation project managers and practitioners who wish to use biodiversity and ecosystem service assessments and valuation to create change. It is designed to stimulate and facilitate reflections among teams about the context for a project. It can help guide thinking, synthesize information, and stimulate effective strategy and planning.

The tool introduces five analytical frameworks that illuminate social, political and institutional dimensions of ecosystem management. Examples include power dynamics, value systems, environmental strategies, effective institutions, and the role of innovation. For each framework, the Context Diagnostic provides a summary of the social science theory, a check-list of questions to reflect on, a diagram to synthesize and organize information, and a fictionalized example inspired by a real case.  The Context Diagnostic can be used to guide internal team discussions. Issues that warrant further exploration can be investigated through interviews, surveys, focus groups, or field visits.

The tool can be used at different points in a project: in early phases, to assess the conditions that will enable success and specific metrics of success for the project; mid-way, to reflect on how circumstances have changed and how to adapt; or, at the end, to debrief on successful and less successful outcomes.  The Context Diagnostic can be accessed by reading a technical report and/or watching a series of videos.

A woman planting trees for onward growth in the Ashrams forests near Vadodara, India.
A woman planting trees for onward growth in the Ashrams forests near Vadodara, India. Photo courtesy of Global Warming Images / WWF

What made you realise context matters for conservation?

Laurent: In 1982, my supervisor (Claude Henry) was asked by the French Ministry of Environment to value ecosystem services in monetary metrics to help public decision-making about infrastructure development, things like roads and dams. Claude Henry said, “Sure, we can do that, but first let’s check that public decisions are really made by weighing costs and benefits using economic values.” A detailed analysis of five infrastructure and agriculture decisions showed not a single case was based on economic valuation. This made me keenly aware that there is more at play in decision-making.

Bhaskar:    In 1990, I researched tree planting policies in India to address the fuelwood crisis. Donors were giving out saplings and assumed farmers would plant the trees for fuelwood. But it didn’t work! Why not? No one had paid attention to the incentive structures that drive the decisions of families and farmers in India. Farmers did not have sufficient labour to maintain the trees in the early years after planting. And the saplings being handed out were not good species for fuelwood. Commercial farmers were instead planting the saplings as a cash crop.  This taught me that political economy and incentive structures affect decision-making for land management and are critical determinants of success for any project.

So why does context affect whether natural capital approaches succeed?

Bhaskar:    Assessing natural capital always occurs in the context of a particular place and the people who live and interact with nature there. A natural capital assessment is meaningless unless placed in the context of that overall ‘social-ecological system’.

Laurent:    In my view, the natural capital movement has been based mostly on two dimensions – ecology and economics. But there are many other dimensions to decision-making – cultural, historical, and political. It is essential to consider these in the places we work.

Clément:    Natural capital approaches have had most success improving decision-making in places where enabling conditions exist. For example, motivated stakeholders, conducive policy and institutions, and a culture of deliberation and compromise. But unfortunately these conditions are not in place everywhere. The natural capital community needs strategies to succeed even where change is difficult—for example, where powerful established interests are threatened.

A rubber tree seed, Long Pahangai, East Kalimantan.
A rubber tree seed, Long Pahangai, East Kalimantan. Photo courtesy of WWF / Simon Rawles

How useful is the context diagnostic for NatCap’s partners who often begin with a deep understanding of the context for their project?

Clément:    The Context Diagnostic has been tested in two places so far: in the Philippines, to support an Agence Française de Développement restoration project; and, in Indonesia, to support WWF and the Government of Indonesia with creation of an ecological corridor in central Sumatra. The Context Diagnostic proved useful to guide discussions in both large workshops and small team discussions.

It helped the teams uncover and reflect on key issues that people already knew but that had not yet surfaced in the projects and that were critical considerations for the success of the projects. For example, in Sumatra, the questions in the Context Diagnostic helped to identify that new, proposed sustainable production practices for palm oil and rubber farmers can only work if there is greater control of land-grabbing.

Bhaskar:    There are many other projects and processes that could benefit from the context diagnostic, not only NatCap. For example, the Bonn Challenge sets out global commitments to forest restoration. While IUCN, WRI, NatCap and others have designed methods to support that restoration, such as ROAM, these methods are generally techno-centric and thus risk ignoring key elements of context that can make or break the project’s trajectory toward its stated goals. Such work could benefit from critical consideration of the context in which restoration is or is not practiced. This example brings me right back to my first story about planting saplings in India. One of my students counted the number of saplings that had been distributed in recent decades. They would cover the surface of India five times over! If we focus more on context, perhaps we can avoid similar mistakes.

So what’s next for this collaboration?

Clément:    We are excited to roll out the case method for the Context Diagnostic as part of the Natural Capital Project’s training program. We tested it already with practitioners at the 2017 Natural Capital Symposium and with students at the University of Cambridge. In these early tests, it has proved to be a powerful learning method.

The other focus of the GAMES project is on accounting. We are looking at how to connect information systems to ecosystem-centred organization and management. We just had a successful workshop sponsored by the University of CambridgeCentre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) that brought together the ‘critical accounting’ and conservation communities. Moving forward, we are excited to apply these new accounting frameworks, for example, with WWF-UK in the CamEO catchment, where local communities can leverage natural capital information as they develop strategies for river management in the face of the huge policy upheaval of Brexit.

Learn more about the Context Diagnostic for Conservation by exploring the following resources:

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